Thursday, April 30, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Dropping the dime on Ray Bradbury

The other day, I lost an i. It's a key key as keyboards go and now it is gone. I'm not sure how, but one minute it was an i key and the next moment it was suffering total existence failure.

I suppose that's what I get for writing about pirate robots. I was asking for it, really.  I mean look at that thing! It only had one i to begin with... 

(Yes, I've worn the letters off my keys. It happens quickly in my line of work. If I wasn't a touch typist, I'd need to use disposable keyboards because I'd go through at least one a month.)

Anyway, as I was poking around online trying to find a replacement, it reminded me of the last time a laptop died on me and the story of Ray Bradbury's typewriter. That laptop died shortly after he did, so in honor of Throwback Thursday, here is the piece I wrote on what he taught me about the value of a dime...

8 June 2012

Computers. They make our lives easier, except when they don't, and recent computer problems have made me spend some time working on my penmanship and reflecting on the nature of time: I only have so much of it to devote to this endeavor, and doing this thing the old-fashioned way is aggravatingly slow.

Apologies to my readers, but my writing time has been somewhat curtailed of late. When given a choice between writing stories or writing blog posts, I choose the stories every time. And it's been a choice I've had to make with special delicacy lately due to the untimely demise of my laptop. It's hard to upload a page of a legal pad to my blog. It's not impossible, mind you, but the two technologies are not compatible without a special adapter and that special adapter is me.

But I do not alone beweep my outcast state because I am re-learning a valuable lesson about the value of my writing time.

On the day Ray Bradbury died, I was sitting at a computer loaned to me by a college library. This is important because Mr. Bradbury, you see, didn't own a typewriter when he started out. He rented one in the basement of UCLA's Powell Library for $.10 per half hour. Fahrenheit 451 famously cost him $9.80 to write.

A bargain by any measure.

But think about that. If you've never used a typewriter to write anything of length, I invite you to go do so and come back to marvel with me at the economy of this claim. One of the great works of American Letters took less than 49 hours to complete. That's a groundbreaking novel (originally published as a serial in Playboy) written in 6 and a half standard work days. All because its author was counting his dimes.

How many dimes did you spend on your last story?

I understand that there's infinite variety in writing styles and there's no such thing as a correct answer to "How long does it take to write a good book?" As with any art, it takes as long as it takes.

But if your computer charged you a fee for every half hour you spent, how much faster would you write? If you're like me, you would write so much faster it would make your head spin. Because one of the problems with writing on a computer is all the many other things you can do with a computer. 

If you were paying for the time on the computer, how much less time would you spend looking at cute pictures of kittens and poking your friends on Facebook?

How much farther would $9.80 get you on a typewriter versus an internet-enabled laptop?

There's no right answer to this. The internet is blessing and curse. A digital circus that is hard to ignore, but also a bottomless cup of stories from which to drink. I think it boils down to whether you want to write stories or put on digital clown makeup and take the center ring.

As Robert Lynn Aspirin said in the forward to one of his books: "There are fast writers and there are slow writers, I'm a half-fast writer." I, for one, have been on an unintentional journey between the the land of fast and the land of half-fast.

At risk of plundering the pun, I don't want to be a half-fast writer. I don't want to be a half-assed writer either.

In the past couple of months while this blog has been limping along in the shadow of my inattention, I have spent less time writing and written more than I would have otherwise. I have filled several notebooks with story ideas and notes and snippets of text. I've re-edited a book I'd long ago thought worthy of abandoning into something sleeker and more worthy of a reader's time.

The simple fact is that writing is a business, so even though I don't have an hourly wage as a writer, I am very much paying for every minute spent at the keyboard. If you're going to be your own employee, be a productive one. I would never treat my hourly employer this way; why treat myself like that?

Ray Bradbury was infamously curmudgeonly about the internet. He hated it like my cat hates baths. I dis agree with him on that point. I think it's an inexhaustible well of words and enthusiasm. An entire virtual world built entirely out of ideas. But he has a point nonetheless; and though my computer ills are now past, I think I'll remember how good it felt to just sit and put words on a page.

In the end, it's your dime.

Thanks for all your stories, Ray. You left us with a lifetime supply of new worlds to explore. You legitimized the business of writing dreams. And you have left us with some incredibly big shoes to fill. Rest in Peace. We'll take it from here.
Note: Adjusted for inflation, $9.80 in 1950 translates to $98.02 in today's money. Still cheap at twice the price.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).